Angry conservatives stepped up their criticism of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on Tuesday, with several calling for him to be pushed out of office after his comments invoking Disney customer service practices and veterans medical wait times.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt from Missouri and Joni Ernst from Iowa issued statements saying the gaffe was enough to warrant McDonald's immediate resignation.
"Secretary McDonald's preposterous statement is right out of Never Never Land," Blunt said. "I call on him to resign because it's clear he cannot prioritize getting our veterans the health care they deserve and have earned in a timely manner. Dismissing wait times when veterans can often wait months for an appointment is negligent and a clear sign that new leadership is needed at the VA."
Ernst called McDonald's comments "dishonorable" and said the secretary "blatantly dismissed the heart ache and pain that our veterans face while awaiting basic care, and illustrated his compete disregard for the incredibly serious issues facing the VA."
The scandal began on Monday, at a press event where McDonald downplayed ongoing concerns with veterans' wait times to access department medical care, saying that those figures don't always reflect patient satisfaction.
"What really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the VA," he said. "When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What's important is what your satisfaction is with the experience. What I would like to move to eventually is that kind of measure."
Lawmakers and conservative activists seized on the comments as insensitive, misguided and troublesome. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., demanded clarification from the VA on the remarks but stopped short of calling for McDonald's job.
The Washington Examiner published a staff editorial Tuesday titled "Fire Robert McDonald," saying that the two-year Cabinet member "has adopted the cavalier disregard of veterans that he was hired to end" and "has become the lead excuse-maker for an uncaring and self-serving bureaucracy."
Officials from Concerned Veterans for America, a frequent critic of the department and Democratic administration, said they would not call for McDonald's resignation, but only because they have little faith that President Obama would appoint a responsible replacement.
Instead, they're asking that the next president ignore past recommendations to keep McDonald on during the transition between administrations. Dan Caldwell, CVA's vice president for political action, said he doesn't see much hope for improvement for the embattled department, at least until next year.
Both House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., have offered endorsements of McDonald in recent months. Both criticized his Disney remarks Monday, but stopped short of calling for his resignation.
Several Democrats have also expressed concerns about the comments and ensuing firestorm, but to a lesser extent than their GOP colleagues. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Ranking Member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was troubled by the comments but is looking for more information from the department before calling for any specific response.
In an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday, McDonald declined to directly apologize for the comparison, but said he is endeavoring to better explain how the department is working to help veterans.
"Wait times are important, but they're not the only measure of veteran experience," he said. "And that's what veterans are telling us. It's important and if I was misunderstood or if I said the wrong thing, I'm glad that I have the opportunity to correct it."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.